Sunday, April 17, 2011

Angkor Hot

It is hot. Really hot. Idiotically hot. Hotter than you can imagine. Go on, imagine it... it is hotter than that. I have expelled at least 3 liters of sweat. This is Scientific Fact. I have consumed 3 liters of water and haven't peed once, not once, not since 7am. It is now 5:30pm. The aforementioned sunburn is blistering as water tries desperately to escape through reluctant skin. At the first temple, Bataey Kdei, I purchased a small traditional Khmer scarf for $1, the purpose of which is to mop up the salty sea bursting forth from my pores. It has never before occurred to me to put on a scarf when I am hot. This kind of heat defies logic. The scarf is alternately used to soak up the beads of perspiration accumulating on my face every 2 seconds, to shield the sun from my face and neck, and as a miniature swamp cooler. Riding my bike creates an artificial breeze and the dampness of the drenched scarf feels good against my skin. My camera is so hot and damp it has trouble focusing, like me. The sun beats coherent thought out of my brain and only a string of profanities remains. The puddle at my back will not dry. It will still be wet later when I toss it into the sink for laundering and I marvel at the great rings of salt marking the sea's outer limits. It was all worth it. The temples of Angkor are indescribable. I'm not even going to try. The pictures will not do it justice. You're going to have to go experience it for yourself.

Bikes? Bikes!

Excerpt from journal 11.04.2011

Bikes again! This time rented from Mut Mee GH and ridden down to the sculpture park Sala Kaew Ku. The park was constructed over the course of 20 years and the sculptures were cast by a horde of amateurs under the shaman Luang Pu's direction. I'm sorry, did I just limit his title to "shaman"? I meant brahmanic yogi-priest-shaman.

Some children tumble down holes while out playing and maybe break a limb, maybe gain a case of trypophobia (fear of holes, fear of holes... swiss cheese can cause an episode). Other children may climb out unscathed and go on to lead normal lives, whatever that means. Others—well, at least one Luang Pu—tumble down and stumble upon an ascetic named Kaewkoo who reveals the mysteries of the underworld. Luang Pu took his acquired knowledge and created a new religion which blended Hindu and Buddhist beliefs with some of the secular and his sculpture park is an interesting study in their combined iconography. My personal favorite stands at the front of the park, a pack of wild, angry, anthropomorphic dogs driving an elephant out of the garden. The dogs are riding scooters, drinking beers and slinging guns, some sporting enormous erections with nowhere to hide them. This must be why they are so upset. The blushing elephant walks away instead of fighting back, though she could trample the whole lot of debaucherous hounds if she wanted to.

The other fun sculpture was the Wheel of Life. You enter the circle through a giant gaping maw (read: the Jaws of Life) and emerge from the gullet into a walk through the phases of life. We had a handy pamphlet from our GH without which the meaning would be only vaguely discernible. The last statue, representing the final phase of life contained no explanation, only the instructions to consult Julien at Mut Mee. Unfortunately, Julien was in absentia, so we received a brief description of cupid combining two people and shooting your soul's arrow into a new and better life, so begins the circle again. The only way out is to follow the large Buddha who is stepping over the walls and out of the circle. Apparently, Julien's version lasts approximately 2 hours and hopefully leaves the listener with more of an understanding and without questions like "do Hindus and Buddhists have a cupid?"

I wish I had taken more time to ponder each image but at the time I felt the urgent need to rush through the phases of life (which I hope is not symbolic) in order to save my burning red epidermis from an untimely death. I ran to the vendors and became the proud owner of a thin cotton shirt adorned with elephants and bells. If I sweat enough the dyes will bleed onto my skin and make it look as though I am very badly burned. But the damage is easily washed off everywhere except my shoulders and nose which are currently slathered in aloe. No worries, my little Buddhist skin cells die and are reincarnated every moment, though I doubt cupid has anything to do with it.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Boob Tubers

The bus ride from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng in winding and jittery. Whenever I lay back my head to sleep, we hit a bump and the headrest slams into me as if to say "wake up, woman! Look out the window!" In the haze that comes with the consumption of one beer lao at the rest stop, I oblige. Limestone cliffs loom behind a smoky haze, teasing me with their beauty. If they are this lovely when shrouded in a burning season veil... Quietly I imagine them at their full potential. Sleep eludes me, as always. A few rows up, I enviously watch Ian's relaxed head bobbing with the motion of the bus. At least I have my limestone.

We pull into town and our lazy tuk tuk driver will only take us to the center of town. Our favored guesthouse is just outside of town, so we walk. The street is lined with identical signs, yellow with a large bottle of beer lao plastered down the side, only the text varies from sign to sign. Doesn't really matter, since the restaurants boast seemingly identical menus. The hordes of frat boy tubers I've been warned about are nowhere in sight,but neither is the stunning landscape that supposedly keeps travelers like me coming to a place that has a bad reputation as teenage party central. Then we take a turn and the Nam Song river stretches far in both directions. As we approach our guesthouse, I become sure that we will stay slightly longer than planned. Maylyn GH has adorable little bungalows scattered across a peaceful garden next to a stream. Cows graze in a meadow 100 feet away, their bells tinkling with each movement. We are shown a bungalow with a patio that looks out to rows of jagged cliffs. The sun is low in the sky and everything is shimmering with a golden glow. I can't believe we almost breezed through this town.

At night, I am craving meat–red meat–due to my 14-day-long period, most likely. That was fun. We head to a place in town called Whopping Burger and holy cow! (If cows are holy this burger is surely a deity.) Delicious double-patty garlic mayo goodness. I rarely crave meat, and never a burger (especially in SE Asia) but this puppy is totally worth it. I thank the cows in the meadow.

We walk home through the center of town. There are restaurants where all of the cushions face forward so that every zoned-out teenager has a great view of the friends reruns playing on the television. Always Friends, every restaurant. No, wait, there is Family Guy. This is supply and demand, what the tourists want. Whatever happened to visiting other cultures (question mark not currently available on this Cambodian computer) Rows of shop hawking bikinis and short skirts in an otherwise conservative community. The local women swim fully clothed and I mean fully--I have seen women in jeans and sweatshirts in the river. I wonder what this town was like ten years ago before the bros, buckets and bleached blondes took over. The drunken douche bags hardly notice the scenery and the whiskey-fueled debauchery doesn't lend itself to the surroundings. At least it is amusing to look out onto the street while munching on your dinner and count the number of bandages and crutches that walk by. Ya hear that, kids (insert question mark) Limestone and booze don't mix.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Vilayvahn Guesthouse, Luang Prabang, Laos

Excerpt from journal 02.04.2011

Luang Prabang, a land where coffee, water and bananas (in order of importance) flow freely. Ain't no Nescafe either, this is bona-fide coffee Lao. Yum. This town is beautiful and in my moments alone, I walk. The first time I stubled upon Wat Xieng Thong it was mid-day and tourists were milling about with their cameras and conversations in many tongues. The second time was yesterday. It was dusk and as I approached the pink and muraled temple grounds my breath slowed, my heart slowed and time slowed. The dusty colors appeared even more serene in the lingering minutes after the golden hour. Not a tourist in sight (aside from my pale self) and the monks were gathered in the temple, their chant floating out the windows, past my ears and continuing their journey across the Mekong. I would have stayed in the embrace of their echos, but the voices came to an end and a novice monk carried an orange and yellow arrangement of flowers out of the Wat's doorway and I pondered where he might place such a lovely offering when he dumped it in the shrine to the gods of rubbish. I took this as my cue to leave and I wandered down the long white steps that lead to the river and catch the final moments of what must have been an incredible sunset.

Meandering through residential streets where Laotian families prepare their dinners with doors flung wide open, massage parlors tempt me with their extensive menus of luxurious treatments at budget prices, and little French-style cafes offer buttery croissants and frothy lattes, I head back to the guesthouse.

This town feels good. I am reluctant to leave.

I tried to drag Ian to Wat Xieng Thong a couple of days later and we were forced to pay a fee even as the temple was closing its doors, and the light wasn't the same and time wasn't the same and the monks were silent and I realized that my moment in Luang Prabang was for me and only me, this peaceful city's small offering, and for this I felt immensely grateful.

This morning I rose at dawn to see the monks' alms procession. It was such a sad display of tourists forgetting that these orange-clad Buddhists are actually humans full of feelings and traditions deserving respect. I watched a whale of a woman in glaring white walk down the row of monks, flashing her camera in their faces as she went and pictured her in a Catholic church, squeezing clumsily down the communion line while taking photos of the metaphorical body and blood of Christ.

By the time I got back to the room it was time for our outing with our lovely Canadian friends Michelle & Greg and Big Brother Mouse. This program is really very cool. Local writers create a children's story, local artists illustrate them, and Big Brother Mouse is the publisher. These books are then distributed to small, sometimes very remote Laos villages in the form of a "book party." (You can sponsor one of these parties from Laos, or from abroad via the internet and should you find yourself in Luang Prabang you may join the organization for one of their outings.) Each student gets to take home their own book of choosing and the school director is given a stack of books so that students can swap theirs out for a different one. Most of these kids have never seen a children's book and they got SO excited during story time. One book had a poem about an animal on one page and the kids were supposed to guess the animal. The room erupted into a chant when our guide was about to turn the page and reveal the animal. It was effing adorable. We played field games and learned a new song about Big Brother Mouse and Michelle made a few friends and learned a few names, I learned how to say "goat"in Laotian ("beh", like the noise it makes) and Ian was given a kitty toy from Thao–the incredibly eloquent kid in class who was teaching himself English. He must have been thrilled that many of the books were printed with both Lao and English translations. It was such an amazing experience to share the day with these kids and I am so thankful for Greg and Michelle, who told us all about the program and offered up a large chunk of the donation.